Going out for a meal is a simple pleasure but, with several restaurants identified as COVID-19 hotspots across the country, what can you do to stay safe?
- Some conditions in a restaurant setting can increase the risk of COVID-19 infection, according to an expert
- There are ways to mitigate the risk, including washing hands five times or more in one seating
- The longer diners spend in a restaurant, “the greater the risk of contracting COVID-19”
Experts say there are ways to minimise the risk of contracting the virus in a restaurant or cafe, but the very nature of dining out — staying in one place for a while, sharing food, talking, even having a laugh in these tough times — means we need to be very careful.
Director of the International Laboratory for Air Quality and Health at the Queensland University of Technology, Lidia Morawska, said a number of conditions could increase transmission risk at restaurants.
“A large number of people sitting relatively close together and it’s usually quite loud, so [they are] talking or shouting over background noise, ventilation conditions are often non-existent and time spent in this environment might be one or two hours,” she said.
Restaurants have had to change their operating practices to mitigate some of these risks.
They are required by law to have a COVID-19 safety plan or checklist and in states other than Victoria, they are doing their best to keep the doors open.
What are the main risks when dining out?
By now, a lot of us know we need to avoid coming into contact with droplets of coronavirus.
The virus can be spread by directly breathing in airborne droplets or by transmission from surfaces.
As the ABC has previously reported, it is possible a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has coronavirus on it and then touching their own mouth or nose.
Clinical chair of infection prevention and disease control at University of Sydney and Westmead Hospital Ramon Shaban said surfaces were a big concern in restaurants.
“The main risk is coming into contact with the virus from respiratory droplets that other people with the infection, such as staff or fellow customers, shed onto surfaces and objects such as tabletops, door handles and other high-touch contact surfaces,” he said.
A widely accepted study in the New England Journal of Medicine found the virus could still be detected on stainless steel and plastic after 72 hours.
Think about the communal surfaces in a restaurant or cafe and how often you might touch them.
Professor Shaban said there were five key moments when you should wash your hands.
“On arrival, after touching common-use items such as menus, before eating, after going to the toilet and upon leaving the restaurant,” he said.
You should also use hand sanitiser regularly throughout the time at the restaurant or cafe.
Another key risk is the amount of airflow in the venue, according to Professor Morawska.
She said a lack of air movement was a problem.
“If everything is closed up … if someone is infected in the restaurant and keeps exhaling virus-laden particles, well they will be lingering in the air in the restaurant and others will be infected,” Professor Morawska said.
Professor Shaban said the risk of transmission was lower in open environments and outside settings.
“Sitting by an open window might provide some risk benefit but this is not usually practical,” he said.
Does time spent in a restaurant affect the chance of contracting COVID-19?
Quite simply, yes.
The pandemic has changed a lot of our habits and it needs to change our expectations of dining out, too.
Things like not having anywhere to go anywhere — or staying in one venue — for a few hours or maybe more while sharing food and drinks with our friends.
Or the hum of conversation and kitchen noise that means we lean in a little closer and talk a little louder.
Before the pandemic, that might have been a good time but when COVID-19 can be spread both by contact and by airborne droplets, we have to do it differently.
Restaurants and cafes are required to record the personal details of diners to aid any possible contact tracing efforts.
If a case is identified, tracing efforts will aim to find all close contacts of the infected person.
NSW Health considers a “close contact” to be someone who has been face-to-face with a confirmed case for at least 15 minutes or in the same closed space for at least two hours while that patient was infectious.
Is it OK to share food?
The “our plates are designed to be shared” philosophy has had to change.
Professor Shaban advised against sharing food and utensils and said “common-use items” like salt and pepper shakers should be avoided unless they have been cleaned.
“Better still, ask that they are cleaned when you receive them,” he said.
Remember, existing food standard regulations mean, even before COVID-19, restaurants and cafes were going to a lot of effort to keep spaces clean and contamination low.
What else can help diners stay safe?
All the social distancing practices we’ve learnt throughout this pandemic apply when you sit down to eat.
- Do not attend a restaurant if you have even the mildest symptoms
- Stay 1.5 metres away from other people
- Do not touch your face with your hands unless they are clean, ideally after sanitising with an alcohol-based solution
- Cough and sneeze away from other people and while covering your face
- While not eating, consider wearing a mask in situations where you are unable to physically distance from others
- Make sure the restaurant has a COVID-19 safety plan
- Make sure your details are collected so effective contact tracing can be undertaken
There are some scenarios where Professor Shaban recommended diners rethink a restaurant altogether.
“If the restaurant is crowded and does not demonstrate physical distancing, then reconsider your attendance,” he said.